Tigers focused on process, not expectations
Four Series wins may be goal, but spring about competition, fundamentals
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers reported to Spring Training on Monday with the rallying cry of four more wins, noting how they came up short in the World Series.
Their manager would like to give his players a reminder of all the wins it takes just to get back there.
Come Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers hold their first workout, count on Jim Leyland making that point. No matter how many games Detroit won last season, no matter the additions the club made to bolster its chances, nothing is guaranteed.
Sweeping the Yankees in last year's American League Championship Series means nothing this spring, the same as pulling out the AL Central in a September charge past the White Sox or shutting down the A's in Game 5 of the AL Division Series.
Leyland isn't trying to be a downer, but he's readying for a competition, not a coronation.
"I think a lot of people have the mentality, 'Well, they got to the World Series last year. They'll win it this year,'" Leyland said Monday morning. "That's just some people's mentality, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we all know it doesn't work like that. That's why it goes back to the process that I'm talking about.
"I just want this team to win as many games as they're supposed to win. I can't put a number on it. I don't know what that number is. If we're supposed to win 95 games, I want to win 95. If we're supposed to win 85, I want to win 85, whatever it may be. My job is to get the best out of what we've got, and it looks pretty good. But there are a lot of [good] teams in baseball."
The process starts Tuesday morning, when Leyland makes his annual spring speech to pitchers and catchers, and continues when they take the field for their first workout. He's emphasizing the need for pitchers to do a better job of holding baserunners, and he'll have former Tigers postseason hero Kenny Rogers in camp as an instructor to help with that at the end of the week. Leyland has talked about it in past springs, but not as a priority.
On the flip side, the Tigers have emphasized basestealing with leadoff man Austin Jackson to the point that they've hired longtime coach and baserunning guru Jeff Cox as a consultant. He'll spend two to three weeks working with Jackson in camp, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said, and Cox will be in Detroit at several points in the season to reinforce it.
In a spring when the Tigers know they have the talent to win, they're emphasizing execution. In a camp where Leyland has to make a decision on a potential rookie closer who has never thrown a Major League pitch, Leyland is emphasizing talent over experience.
He'll watch Bruce Rondon, who has been in camp for several days already, and he'll look over his veteran relievers if he needs another option. If Leyland likes the potential he sees in Rondon, however, the manager emphasized that he won't be afraid to take him.
"Am I concerned? Yes. Am I excited? Probably moreso," Leyland said.
While Leyland believes Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel can close a game at times, Rondon -- the 22-year-old Venezuelan with the 102-mph fastball -- is the one guy Leyland can see on his staff with the potential of becoming an everyday closer. Of the few roster decisions Leyland and Detroit's front office have to make, that's at the top of the list.
Leyland isn't naming Rondon the closer yet, but calls him "a viable candidate." It's possible, Leyland continued, for Rondon to make the roster but not close, though he'd have to find a role as a one-inning pitcher.
The Tigers will need to decide between four-year veteran Rick Porcello and second-year left-hander Drew Smyly for the fifth-starter job, but Leyland knows he has the talent in place to fill the spot. Both have been in camp for days.
Leyland isn't sure what he has for a right-handed hitter off the bench, or platooning in left field with Andy Dirks, but the rest of his lineup is pretty much set.
The Tigers will need to decide whether top offensive prospects Nick Castellanos or Avisail Garcia are ready to open the season in the big leagues, but Leyland said Monday that youngsters in camp should be thinking more about making an impression than making the team with the odds against them.
"I have a good memory," Leyland said.
There aren't as many early birds as in past years, mainly because the Tigers have tried to rest some pitchers who went through the grind of last year's postseason run. Yet those who didn't pitch as much down the stretch have tried to get a head start.
Rondon has been throwing all week in his case for the closer's job by taking his throwing program to Lakeland. Porcello, an annual early arrival, made the trip south early to work on mechanical adjustments that he made with pitching coach Jeff Jones last month in Michigan. So did Smyly, who will be working on a changeup at Jones' suggestion to fill out his already impressive arsenal and improve his case for the fifth-starter spot.
Once workouts begin Tuesday, their preparation will pick up. With a longer camp this spring, thanks to the World Baseball Classic, Jones will be encouraging pitchers to go slow.
"To me, it's to our advantage this year," Jones said. "We have some guys that threw an awful lot of innings last year and the year before. The extra five days [in camp] will help us."
If the extra time at the start is an advantage, extra games at the end is the goal. Four more wins are the dream.
"The mind-set going into Spring Training is that we came so close the last couple years," catcher Alex Avila said. "Everybody has that in their mind: What do we have to do to win that last game?"